It was Christmas Eve, and it was hard to believe that only a day ago snowmen had come to life and giant stick insects had kidnapped three of the people that were fast asleep in the Ponds' house. Amy and Rory were happily sleeping in their rooms, and Anders was in the spare next to them. However, the two children, Jamie and Zara, had crept out of Jamie's bunk beds and snuck downstairs to wait for Santa Claus, in the living room, where River had claimed the sofa for the few days she had decided to stay. She had stirred when the young pair came in, but promised not to tell their parents if they went to sleep. She would wake them when he arrived. River was not in the living room at the moment though, she had carefully separated herself from the two children that had fallen asleep on her and gone outside for some air, so only Jamie and Zara were left.
A real fire was crackling in the hearth, only just beginning to fade, and the lights twinkled on the Christmas tree as the best friends were curled up on the sofa, using each other as pillows. A shadow appeared just in front of it, dressed in a red suit with big black boots. He was as quiet as possible as he pulled out presents from a big brown sack, putting them under the tree. But he dropped one and it made a slight thud. He froze in place as he heard movement behind him.
"Hello Santa," came a quiet voice behind him.
It was Zara, she was clearly still half asleep, dressed in pink fleecy pyjamas and yawning as she sat up. Jamie was snoring quite happily away behind her. Santa turned around sheepishly and met her eye, she came over and helped him neatly put away what he had dropped and stacked the others' gifts. She didn't even bother looking at her own.
"Sorry I'm late," apologised The Doctor.
"It's ok. I knew you were on the way," she withdrew a folded piece of paper from the front pocket of her pyjama top, "Your letter said you wanted to see me, Doctor, and I waited. It's about time you explained yourself."
The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but Zara covered it as Jamie stirred slightly. She grabbed his hand and lead him out to the hallway, closing the door quietly behind them and sitting on the stairs. The Doctor didn't really know how to react. She was much younger than he had anticipated, but he could tell she understood a lot more than your average child.
"You met her then?" he asked, and she nodded, not saying a word, "I'm sorry about the timing, it all got a little bit mixed up."
"That's alright. You weren't the only one who got it wrong," she shuddered slightly, remembering Rajani and Maiara, "What do you want me to do?"
"It's not like that," protested The Doctor,
"Yes it is. I know all about you, you wouldn't have written to me if something wasn't bothering you. It's River, isn't it?"
"How did you…?"
"I can just tell. She's in trouble isn't she? And you can't help. Am I right?"
"Well…" the Doctor tried to think of some kind of excuse but couldn't. He sighed, resigned, and flopped down on to the staircase next to Zara. "Yes, you are. You're possibly the only person in the entire universe that can," this was not the kind of thing he felt comfortable about laying on a seven year old, but she was smart enough to have worked most things out, and good natured enough to help in any way she could.
"Because…" it was something difficult to explain, "Because, you match."
"We match? But she's grown up. And blonde."
"I mean, your timelines. Your timelines match. Amy and Rory have told you everything, I know…" he paused, "Actually, when did you realise they weren't just stories?"
"When I saw River watching me from the park."
The Doctor nodded, that keen sense of observation and empathy was very clear in the girl's demeanour. She was confident, because she could read people, possibly better than they could read themselves. That was what made her so good at connecting with them, knowing how to act around them, and how to change their moods. It was an ability only children could boast. As people got older they didn't get wiser, they got more cynical and sceptical. It was a very rare occurrence in adults, not losing their belief and concern for everyone else. They had bills to pay, jobs to go to and families to take care of. As far as they were concerned, it was each to their own. But he could tell that very moment that Zara was not one of them, and though he was more reserved, Jamie was not either.
"So, what do you mean our timelines match?" pressed Zara, interrupting his thoughts.
"The rest of us, me, Amy, Rory, even Jamie to a degree, we are never on the same page as River. She has always done something we haven't, or we've already met someone that she hasn't. We don't live life in the right order, and because of that, we can never truly know one another. Her past is my future, and her future is my past. We can never properly be together. Amy and Rory couldn't help her through her childhood, Jamie can't know her properly as his big sister. But you. You're from the same time as her. You know everything about her up to this point. This is the first time you have met her, and you're the only other person she has interacted with that doesn't know her future. The only person who can support her through it," heart breaking emotion was seeping into the Doctor's voice and Zara linked her arm through his, not quite sure what else she could do, "Even if you don't see each other for a while, you'll still be moving in the same direction."
The pair of them fell silent, individually running through their heads everything that the Doctor had said. It was a lot to take on board in one conversation, and there was the additional risk of someone else waking up and finding the 'dead' Doctor sitting on the stairs having a chat. It was common knowledge he had faked his own death, but it didn't mean he no longer had to keep under the radar. There were some things the world shouldn't know.
"OK," Zara eventually said,
The Doctor was confused, "OK what?"
"I'll look after her for you. That's what you want, isn't it? Someone to take care of your wife when you can't."
"Yea. I guess that's right…" he looked at her, "How can you know that? And why are you so calm about it at the age of seven?"
"I escaped from civil war light years away when I was a baby, according to daddy. I think I can add River to my friend list. Besides, if anyone complains, I can just turn into a bear and eat them."
The Doctor laughed, "She's in safe paws then."
"The safest paws, gills, fins, tails and whiskers."
The Doctor grinned as he stood up, "Thank you."
Zara stood up too, and shrugged, "Just don't forget to come say hi sometimes, ok?"
He nodded, "I better go. Merry Christmas, Zara Violet Conrad."
"Happy New Years, Santa."
The Doctor disappeared into the kitchen and out of the back door. Zara knew she wouldn't see him for a while, but he would be watching. As she was looking in the direction he had gone, the front door opened and a cold breeze blew across her back and face. She turned around and saw a shivering River shutting it behind her, warming her hands under her arms.
"Zara? What are you doing up? Thought I heard you talking to somebody."
Zara grinned, "Oh, just Santa,"
River raised an amused eyebrow. "Right. Well, I'm frozen, chai?"
Zara nodded and River wandered over and ruffled the girl's hair. As she withdrew her hand, Zara took it, like a child would her parent's, and it seemed perfectly natural as they walked after the Doctor together.